Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Chris Messina
Rated: R, for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use
Runtime: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Bottom line: Indie romantic comedy among 2012’s best
“Ruby Sparks” is a gift for anyone who thought wit had disappeared from American movies and proof that some people in Hollywood still know how to write a great screenplay. The truly remarkable thing is that the script was written by the film’s lead actress, Zoe Kazan.
It isn’t that “Ruby Sparks” is a totally original idea. That’s not what makes it special. It borrows a lot from “Pygmalion” and “Stranger Than Fiction,” dabbles in Charlie Kaufman’s metafiction style, and tells its tale with an attitude reminiscent of “(500) Days of Summer.”
It’s the film’s mixture of joy, brains, angst, beauty and mystery that make it the nicest surprise of 2012 so far.
It all begins with writer’s block. Calvin (Paul Dano) wrote an enormously successful and respected novel when he was 18. Around a decade later, he has failed to reach the same artistic heights again. While the entire literary world awaits his next novel, he can’t manage to write anything.
Then he dreams of an encounter with a unique, beautiful girl named Ruby Sparks (Kazan) and begins to write about her. And continues writing about her until he has the beginnings of a novel and has fallen in love with the character. He finds himself writing just to spend time with her.
Then one morning he wakes up to find Ruby, in the flesh, standing in his kitchen and behaving as if they have been in a relationship for some time.
Everything Calvin has written in the novel has come true.
Calvin isn’t sure if he is losing his mind or if she is actually there, until he sees other people interacting with her. Calvin then confides in his protective, skeptical brother Harry (Chris Messina), to whom Calvin must prove that Ruby really is an invention of his mind.
The movie plays the situation for laughs for quite a while and is just hilarious. Two of these scenes are the funniest I’ve seen all year.
Complications naturally begin to arise, though, and we explore the scenario’s slippery moral terrain.
After Ruby first appears, Calvin stops writing any more about her. But she soon develops a life of her own, which provokes all of Calvin’s insecurities and loneliness.
When he feels Ruby drifting away from him, Calvin can’t resist using his power over her to make her the kind of person he wants her to be. This leads the film into a slightly darker place, but one which rings true. Calvin has created a woman who is his ideal and therefore a reflection of himself. He then proceeds to punish her for his own self-loathing, an unfortunate tendency among all people.
What a breath of fresh air “Ruby Sparks” is, with its blend of imagination, silliness and complexity. It’s a movie about the creative process, the human mind, the absurdity of love and the nature of the artistic muse.
The film also deconstructs what has become a stock character in romantic comedies, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the cute, bubbly, quirky girl who saves the male lead from his depression and doubt but has no life of her own. Ruby’s character does not develop the way most movies would take her.
Pondering the strength of both the screenplay and Kazan’s performance, I can’t help but declare that a star is born. Although, Kazan is not a newcomer. She is the granddaughter of the legendary director Elia Kazan (“On the Waterfront,” “A Streetcar Named Desire”) and has played several supporting roles in indie films and television.
But this is a genuine breakout moment for Kazan. The screenplay is outstanding, and she proves beyond all doubt that she is a lead actress with impressive range.
Dano and all the supporting players are also excellent, especially Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s new agey mother and stepfather.
“Ruby Sparks” is a hilarious, touching, smart movie that simply must be seen.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.